World-class balloonist Joe Kittinger talks about the new skies he'd like to conquer
As the nation's man-in-space program was being developed, the Air Force wanted to know if a person could survive an emergency ejection in space conditions. So Joe Kittinger Jr. volunteered to try to find out.Skip to next paragraph
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On Aug. 16, 1960, after 18 months of training and preparation, he climbed into the gondola of a helium balloon in New Mexico and rode it higher than man had ever soared before - to 102,800 feet, nearly 20 miles up, at the edge of space.
Then he jumped out, plummeting for about 41/2 minutes before his parachute opened automatically. As he began his jump he recalls saying, ''Lord, take care of me now.'' At one point he was falling so fast that he became the first person to break the sound barrier with just his body.
That same Joe Kittinger, now a retired Air Force test-pilot colonel, has just won another distinction in long-distance space. He's the fellow who is being dubbed the balloon world's Lindbergh for his 84-hour flight Sept. 14-18 from Caribou, Maine, to a tree near Savona in northwestern Italy.
The 3,543.7-mile trip beat the old world record of 2,475 miles for a solo balloon flight, set by Ed Yost in his attempt to cross the Atlantic in 1976. The Kittinger distance was officially certified yesterday by the National Aeronautic Association as the longest solo balloon flight ever. Five people have been killed in balloon attempts - two of them solo flights - to cross the Atlantic.
At his home base here, where he works as the chief of operations at Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus, which offers balloon rides, banner pulling, and skywriting, balloonist Kittinger talked recently about his daredevil career.
He puts his purpose simply: ''I love adventure. I love setting out to do something and accomplishing it.'' He likes the suggestion that his trip across the Atlantic seems to have ''sparked a sense of adventure in a lot of people.''
His exploits are not without a spirit of patriotism, as well. During his third tour of duty in Vietnam, after about 1,000 hours of combat flying, he was shot down and held prisoner for 11 months. A small American flag sits on his desk in his second-floor office in a hangar here. There are several biplanes parked down below. They're the instruments of ''aerial publicity.''
But he's not reckless, he and his friends insist. For example, he spent 18 months preparing for the Atlantic solo crossing. ''I love life,'' he says, ''and that's the reason I take a lot of precautions when I do these particular adventures and programs.''
Joe Kittinger Sr. judges that his son was a ''daredevil'' when he was a boy. But it's also true that the father let the son do things many fathers might not have let their children do, such as piloting a small motorboat alone at night down the St. Johns River in Florida, a home for many alligators, when he was 12.
Ken Hargrove, a former Air Force buddy of Kittinger's who served on the ground crew for the Atlantic crossing, says his friend won a reputation as a test pilot who liked to ''push something to the edge and go right through.''
A freckle-faced man with a big mustache whose smiles and laughs are also large, Kittinger says - without any hint of bragging - that he cannot think of anything he has ever refused to do because of fear of the consequences. If something of that sort came along, he says, ''I would work hard to overcome that fear.''
Crossing the Atlantic in a gondola 15 feet long, 7 feet wide, with sides only 41/2 feet high takes considerable strength. The ''basket'' is suspended from a 10-story helium-filled balloon that can suddenly soar upward - or downward - in weather changes.